There was some hate mail directed at me last week, published as a letter to the editor on the website of this very newspaper.
The letter didn’t mention me by name, but the implications were crystal clear. The writer said he lived right beside a soccer field in Lynn Valley. He said he heard coaches shouting non-stop instructions to their players. He said it was “tiresome.” He said all youth sports coaches should have their vocal cords ripped out by an angry bear.
OK, he didn’t say that last part. But he did say that “field-side coaching should be eliminated.” I suppose there’s no proof that he meant “eliminated” by sniper fire.
You see, I am one of those coaches. I’m at that very field once a week, guiding my young charges on their journey to soccer glory and personal growth. I reckon I’m actually one of the quieter coaches on the field, which means I am only yelling instructions at my players approximately once every four seconds. How are kids supposed to learn the intricacies of soccer without someone telling them to SPREAD OUT! 95 times a game?
I actually feel this letter writer’s pain. In the age group I’m coaching right now they divide the field into three smaller games, which means that with a few coaches working with each team, there are likely 15-20 adults on the field all day long, shouting very important things to the players. That’s a lot of yelling at little soccer players, many of whom are there mostly for the post-game Timbits.
And as someone who engages in a lot of “field-side coaching,” I know that a lot of what we yell is just completely inane. At my last game I thought my boys were a little slow in getting back on defence when the other team had a throw-in. I then heard myself yelling this: “Get back! Guys! Defend up!”
Defend … up?
How does that work, exactly? Jet pack?
The truth is, it’s hard to stay quiet. It really is. I try to remind myself all the time to just shut the hell up for a moment or two when the game is on, but the urge to offer little tips, to light a fire under those little feet, or even just to applaud a good effort is just about unstoppable.
And there are plenty of moments in each game where I see players who are genuinely confused or going wildly astray and need a bit of coaching to get them back on track. But then again, there are many coaches who love nothing more than to yell SHOOT at a player who is right in front of goal and clearly already winding up to take a shot. I’ve even seen players making a smart play – they do that quite a bit, you know – only to be distracted right in the middle of it by a coach yelling for them to do the exact thing they are doing. Or yelling at them to do something dumber or less creative. Or reminding them that they need to SHOOT.
This last week was actually one of my quietest games of the season. I had read the letter to the editor just the day before so the thought of trying to shut up just a bit was fresh in my mind. Also halfway through the game I lost track of what page of my lineup notebook I was supposed to be on and ended up trying to sub in players who were already on the field. I spent several minutes of the game staring at my page in confusion as I tried to un-scramble my own mess to get everyone equal playing time. Those were some dangerous moments for our team. With me staring at my notebook, our sideline was virtually silent except for the constant yelling of my two trusty assistant coaches.
I discovered, in my confused silence, that the players on my team continued to run around and score goals and take horrible throws-ins and SPREAD OUT the same way they do in every other game.
There is a tough balance there, and it applies to all sports I’ve ever witnessed, not just soccer. Some coaches (and parents, of course – we’re all in this together), yell at the players like they are voice-activated remote-controlled humans, incapable of making a single move without being told exactly what to do.
And then there are the people who probably should not be coaching at all. I heard one guy yell at his team earlier this season: “If you’re not here to play soccer, get off my field!” The kids were six.
Most coaches, though – myself included – fall somewhere in the middle. And don’t get me wrong – I absolutely adore coaches. Many of my favourite people in the world are coaches. It’s a fun, tough, rewarding job, and we’re just out there to help the kids grow and learn and enjoy the game.
I challenge all of us, though, to try to turn the volume down just a notch or two. Save your best yelling for practice, do your coaching at halftime. If you absolutely have to yell something while the kids are playing, make sure it is constructive and positive. Think of the kids, and what they really want from the experience. Or, if not that, at least think of the neighbour trying to relax in his backyard with a beer and earplugs. We could be a little quieter for that guy. It is Lynn Valley after all – he may actually be friends with a bear.
Andy Prest is the sports editor for the North Shore News and writes a biweekly humour/lifestyle column. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.